I recently read Dominica’s article and it got me thinking about the frequent ups and downs we expats experience. I instantly wanted to reply to her and say how much I love my expat life, how lucky I feel to have an amazing hometown like Paris as well as an exotic life in Hong Kong with my husband and kids. And then, just as quickly, I didn’t want to reply anymore because after all, life sucks, doesn’t it?
We don’t talk enough about expat depression and that is a huge shame because it’s something most expats go through. Being aware of it, knowing others go or have gone through it can be so helpful. Living abroad is an amazing experience, but it can have its bad days or months. Some may say years.
The worst part about being sad abroad is you feel totally isolated and misunderstood in your new country. You can’t talk to people you regularly see because you dont want to be labeled, “The Depressed One.” And you can’t complain to friends back home because you live the perfect life abroad: beautiful weather, exotic travels and a full-time nanny. How can you be depressed? How dare you be down?!
Some settle in quickly, meet and make friends in a heart beat, and can go home whenever they want or need. For the rest of us, it takes more time—and hopping on the next plane home isn’t always possible.
I love living in Asia, especially Hong Kong, where I’ve been dying to get back to for years. I love my friends here who make me laugh around coffee as much as wine and with whom I bonded instantly. I love that my children are experiencing life in a country that is much more open to different cultures and tastes, instead of staying in France all their lives. But I still have my bad days… weeks.
There are so many articles selling expat life: What a wonderful, fulfilling experience it is; how you should embrace your host country’s culture to truly appreciate it. Not enough prepare you for balancing a foot in one place while the other’s back home. No one teaches you how to cope with the constant anxiety of something happening to loved ones 10,000 miles away. You’re certainly not prepared for sadness sneaking up on you, triggered by a Facetime with your best friend showing off her latest Monoprix purchase. Or simply the absence of the daily phone call. That one hurts, too.
Going out and meeting new people is part of the cure for just-landed-expat-depression. Your mind may say it’s easier to stay in bed or on the couch, but don’t listen. It’s going to be really hard the first weeks. You need to be a rock for your kids because they left their lives and friends behind, too. The working adult usually adjusts more quickly. The one at home (usually the woman, but not always) suffers more from the consequences of expat depression, including issues with alcohol. In expat communities where your social life becomes more active and important (because you don’t have old friends and family to take up your time), it’s common to turn to drinking as a way to cope with negative feelings. Unfortunately, it can lead to a longer-term problem. I’ve known a few people who developed an alcohol addiction while being expats and have been in denial about it for as long as they were abroad.
So after 2 expatriations, many tears and lots of ups and downs, I (and my expat friends) have some advice:
Life goes on, love stays true. If your friends back home are really your friends, your relationships will survive the distance. But check in regularly so you stay connected. Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp, etc… there’s no excuse not to keep in touch.
Take it one day at a time. On bad days, just try to focus on one positive thing. Write it down, stick it on your fridge. On really bad days, cook something comforting and read a favorite book. Take a bath. Call your best friend. Whatever soothes your soul.
Have a goal in mind. I fight my bad days with goals and activities. My 2017 goal is to lose weight and be a knockout this summer. Seriously, me, the Frenchwoman who bragged about my gym intolerance actually goes to the gym, does pilates, hikes and counts the minutes spent on the elliptical machine! It’s embarrassing, I know.
Depression is hard but you can beat it. Beat the shit out of it! With help from your new besties, love from your home bestie and, of course, wine. (But not every night.)
If nothing seems to help and you’re suffering, please do not be afraid to seek a therapist. There are many who specifically deal with expat issues. Ask someone in your online expat group, Google it or speak to your general practitioner for a referral.